Michael Shannon is the kind of actor who always seems to have that look in his eye. The thousand-yard stare with its simmering menace, the deep-set gaze of someone with the looks and chops to play not just crackpots and loners but the dangerous, twisted, intense, or just straight-up insane.
Add to that list the likes of Morrissey, the brooding frontman for The Smiths who Shannon channeled earlier this month on a concert hall stage in Evanston, Ill., for something the actor isn’t especially known for—playing music live.
There Shannon was, dressed in a grey suit and alternating between two mike stands as, for one night only, the Kentucky native transformed himself into the Pope of Mope. For almost two hours, he performed a batch of Smiths tunes from the group’s third studio album “The Queen is Dead.”
To his audience, it might have seemed an artistic departure for the journeyman actor. And it was—but it's one that didn't come out of left field.
Shannon has for a few years now actually pursued a side project away from the klieg lights of Hollywood, moonlighting as a singer and songwriter leading a small rock combo, Corporal. He also does one-off performances here and there on his own, which is how, in front of a crowd on a recent summer night at the venue SPACE, the thespian who's tackled characters as idiosyncratic as General Zod in Man of Steel and a federal agent in Boardwalk Empire, ended up leading a band (not his own) through Smiths classics.
“I started playing a long time before I had any idea about acting,” Shannon said in a phone conversation with Maxim prior to the Smiths show. “I took piano lessons as a kid and sang in the choir. I played in the orchestra at my school. My favorite band in high school was the Talking Heads."
“My interest in music is far too voracious and varied to summarize in any way, shape or form. I pretty much like every kind of music there is. Except bad music, which I don’t like so much.”
In hindsight, of course, it seems perfectly inevitable that a music-loving artist like Shannon would wind up in a band of his own, penning songs and playing shows.
“I started Corporal when my acting career was on the skids,” Shannon recalls. “There was about a year when I really wasn’t doing much of anything. I had a lot of time to devote to it. Now, I feel like both of these endeavors require your undivided attention. It’s like Jared Leto said—'I’m going to quit acting and focus on the band'—and that’s what he did. For a while. That made a lot of sense to me. I think trying to do both, you wind up shortchanging the work...Maybe I’m using that as an excuse. No matter how busy you are, you always have some time when you’re sitting around staring into space. But I kinda like staring into space.”
Not as much as he likes playing and recording music, apparently. Shannon wrote the songs on the band’s self-titled debut, released in 2010, for which recording started at Monsterland in Brooklyn, then moved to the Pigeon Club studio in Hoboken, with final mixing sessions at the Saltlands studio.
All but two tracks were done live, with a bare minimum of overdubs added after. Shannon used his cell phone to snap a few photos of the band that made it on to the album package. He’s also the one who picked the group’s name.
“I think the name Corporal was my idea,” he said. “Corporal can have a lot of different meanings. For me, I took it as the rank above private, which means you’ve got a little more clout than a scrub, basically. I’ve always liked that rank. I remember watching M*A*S*H* and Corporal Radar—that point of view where you're not a private. You’ve accomplished something, but really not much of anything at all.”
The self-effacement may be baked into the group’s name, but that's where the applicability ends. Inside Michael Shannon the actor there’s always been—and will be—a musician.
The band, he says, wants to make another album. They've already recorded a few songs for it. Locking in the rest will be a matter of cornering three busy people who lead separate lives.
“It's a big experiment,” he explained, adding that he might try to do the same kind of thing—filling the shoes of another modern music legend—again at some point. It just depends on where the music takes him next.
Photos by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New Yorker